June 4, 1908: Cornerstone laid for the Pythian Temple
At 10 a.m. on June 4, 1908, hundreds of Louisiana’s most successful and ambitious African-American citizens gathered at what was then the intersection of Gravier and Saratoga streets to celebrate the laying of the cornerstone of the Colored Knights of Pythias Temple. When completed and christened in 1909, it would quickly become a beehive of social affairs, black-owned business, political activity, cultural and artistic celebration, and philanthropic endeavors.
The Pythian Temple’s status as a centerpiece of black New Orleans society was proud but fleeting. In the early 1940s, burdened by financial distress and tax debt dating to Depression-era legal action in 1933, the local Knights of Pythias was forced to sell its prized building. Located at what is now 234 Loyola St., the building changed owners and uses several times over the decades and soon fell into disrepair and disuse. By the early 21st century, the grand Pythian was unoccupied. Flooding during Katrina further damaged the historic building, but the last decade has seen a flurry of commercial interest and community interest, culminating with a joint effort of Green Coast Enterprises, ERG Enterprises and Crescent City Community Land and Trust. In May 2017, the majestic and historic nine-story, 122,000-square-foot building reopened as a multi-use facility, with commercial vendors, apartments, a community clinic, a rooftop deck and bike wash.
- The original Knights of Pythias organization was chartered during the waning days of the Civil War as one of the country’s earliest secret societies and fraternal organizations. Within a decade of so, racial division caused a splintering in the Knights of Pythias, leading to the birth of other, often segregated lodges and fraternal entities still under the Pythian umbrella.
- Although the Pythian Temple was erected early in the 20th century, the roots of the Grand Lodge of Colored Knights of Pythias date to1880. In 1882, the Times-Democrat reported that the lodge “has been inaugurated at their Castle Hall, corner Camp and Common streets.” The New Orleans lodge included membership across Louisiana, and lodge conclaves and banquets were often held in other Louisiana cities.
- The 1908 dedication festival included sermons by prominent pastors; a grand parade stepping off at 1116 Perdido St. and featuring several musical groups; the staging of a traditional play; a lodge business meeting; and a banquet at Central Congregational Church. A dozen satellite lodges across the state were recognized at the ceremony.
- The ceremony concluded a five-day extravaganza overseen by Supreme and Grand Chancellor Smith Wendell Green, who was born into slavery but rose to prominence as an entrepreneur and civic leader.
- During its heyday, the Pythian was home to a veritable “who’s who” of the local black community in the early 20th century. In addition to businesses including the Louisiana Weekly newspaper, life insurance companies, a bank and a barbershop, the Pythian served as the crucible for the Krewe of Zulu, as well as the home of the Temple Theater, a spacious auditorium that hosted plays, musicals and other cultural events.
- The Pythian Temple originally was seven stories tall and constructed with an investment of $200,000. The architectural firm of Diboll, Owen & Goldstein designed the structure, which, according to The Times-Democrat, “will be something of a monument to the thrift, integrity and business ability of the negro citizens under whose direction the big work is being done.”
- Arguably the pinnacle of the Pythian’s evolution came in 1923, when the lodge, to celebrate the paying off of all its debts, constructed a double-height eighth floor featuring a posh rooftop garden and dance hall that nurtured some of the pillars of the nascent jazz scene, such as Papa Celestin’s Original Tuxedo Orchestra Band, and bandleader Manuel Perez’s in-house Pythian Orchestra.
- The Pythian building was one of several significant local structures that suffered from a citywide flood in 1912. Engines from the city fire brigade were used to pump water out of the structures.
- In October 1906, three years before the completion of the new temple, New Orleans hosted a memorial session and biannual convention of the Supreme Lodge of the Knights of Pythias. The official convention booklet included a letter to the membership by the event planning committee. “Measured by ([Pythian standards), gauged by this rule of successful life, our friends whose memories we seek to commemorate have attained the fullest perfected, rounded careers as loyal friends, lovable companions and splendid citizens of this most glorious republic.”
The Pythian Temple, as it became known, served as a beacon of hope and societal uplift for a segment of New Orleans’ population that was still less than a half-century out of slavery and striving to attain the rights of citizenry in Jim Crow Louisiana. Upon its completion, it didn’t take long for word of the resplendent temple to spread far and wide, and the building quickly gained fame — a grand tradition and heritage instituted in the past but flourishing to this day. In 1911, writer Green P. Hamilton penned: “The Eighth Wonder of the world is not located in the Orient, in the Occident, nor at the North Pole, but right in the city of New Orleans, in the prosperous State of Louisiana. It is not a temple that is dedicated to the gods, but it is a mammoth, modern, up-to-date building, dedicated to the living and built by Negro brains and Negro capital. The name of this pretentious and magnificent structure is the Pythian Temple of New Orleans, La.”